Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Country Fit For A King

He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.
Isaiah 49:2

I am convinced that capitalism has seen its best days in America, and not only in America, but in the entire world. It is a well known fact that no social institution can survive after it has outlived its usefulness. This capitalism has failed to do. It has failed to meet the needs of the masses...Capitalism finds herself like a losing football team in the last quarter trying all types of tactics to survive. We are losing because we failed to check our weaknesses in the beginning of the game.
Martin Luther King

Happy are those who make the Lord their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.
Psalm 40:4

One cannot worship this false god of nationalism and the God of Christianity at the same time. The two are incompatible and all the dialectics of the logicians cannot make them exist together. We must choose whom we wll serve. Will we continue to serve the false god that places absolute national sovereignty first or will we serve the God in whom there is no east nor west? Will we continue to serve the false god of impenalistic greed or will we serve the God who makes love the key which unlocks the door of peace and security?
Martin Luther King

...for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—-just as the witness of Christ has been strengthened within y'all...
I Corinthians 1:5-6

Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
John 1:29

Where I come from, it is common to postulate that, in America, we all have the opportunity to become "a success." But the Christian prophet that we honor in the Body of Christ this weekend did not believe this lie 50 years ago and he certainly would not believe it now. In his writings and speeches, he spoke of Two Americas: one confirmed with privilege & opportunity, another confined by poverty & oppression. But, in reality, there are not two Americas: more like 4...or even more. Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah has documented the overclass (the uber-wealthy who have mostly withdrawn into a "devastating cultural and psychological narcissism"), the upper middle class (the top 20% of wealth earners who "have the cultural and social capital and civic skills to influence the direction in which our society goes"), the anxious class (who have experienced increasing effects of downsizing, part-timing and loss of benefits) and the underclass (the impoverished 20-30 million who barely survive due to economic developments that have rendered them "superfluous" to our society) which, according to Bellah, "only a fundamental change in public policy will begin to alter the situation."

In the last years of his life, King spoke out more and more against the injustice of both Vietnam and national economic policies. This led many mainstream media outlets to lash out at King. After his Vietnam speech on April 4, 1967, the Washington Post rebuked him, claiming that it "…diminshed his usefulness to his cause, his country and his people." King, a "polished arrow" in God's quiver, spoke with more boldness and courage ("a time comes when silence is betrayal") as the 60s raged on and this became an inconvenient truth for the establishment, those in the American overclass and upper middle class.

Since King's untimely death in 1968 (he would turn 82 this year), economic opportunity has seldom made itself available to people of color. Today, even though we can point out random examples of black achievement like Obama and various Ivy League grads and CEOs, black and brown Americans are three times more likely to live below the poverty level, two times more likely to be unemployed and less than 1/2 own homes as they continue to endure discriminatory policies during job interviews and the loan application process.

American economic policy has taken a dramatic shift in the wrong direction in the past 30 years. Reaganomic tax policy has created an overclass and upper-middle-class on steroids. Wealth has not trickled-down to the anxious and underclasses where most people of color reside. The failure of Reaganomics for people of color has not been because government has encroached in all the wrong places, at all the wrong times. Instead, government has failed to do its job to protect and give opportunity to poor and working people. As marginal income, estate and capital gains tax rates for the wealthiest 2% of Americans have been sliced, all traces of the middle class are being wiped away. Income inequality is widening as CEOs are now collecting 350 times the amount of their lowest paid workers. The top 1% of Americans are now taking away 23.5% of the nation's wealth.

King proclaimed that the problem with laissez-faire capitalism was (and is) that it necessitates a class of low-paid, overworked employees and a "reasonable" amount of unemployed workers in order to keep wages down and American companies competitive in an increasingly globalized world. Within the very rules of capitalism (counterfeit claims about “trickle down” notwithstanding), in order for the "haves" to succeed, there must be "have nots" that keep overhead low and profit high! Unfortunately, anything proposed to alleviate this divide is flippantly dismissed as "socialism." Christians who are scripted by the narrative of "limited government" and "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" personal responsibility are not being honest with the plight of the poor.

Christian friends of mine often tout charitable giving from wealthy donors as the key to pulling the poor out of despair while quoting Jesus telling his disciples, "There will always be the poor among you." However, charitable donations, although well-intended and still have there place, are paternalistic band-aids for viciously unjust economic hemoraging. Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 18, Yahweh's command for Israel to take care of all of the needs of the poor, orphan, widow and immigrant. Only when Israel failed in this task (as they certainly had during Jesus' time) would poverty exist. If institutions and policies (what Paul called "principalities and powers") are perpetuating poverty, then followers of Jesus are called to bear witness--creatively and consistently--to these powers that be. The very presence of poverty in the United States signals the unfaithfulness of Christians in their undeniable vocation to care for the least of these, both systematically and symptomatically.

Cornel West (again) pointed out Thursday in Tavis Smiley's 3-hour panel (with both conservative and progressive leaders) asking "Is There a Brighter Future for the Next Generation?", in order for us to truly honor King's legacy, we should focus on understanding the greatness of America first through the eyes of those at the bottom. As always, West steers our definition of national greatness towards the biblical understanding: he who is greatest among us must become the servant of all. We are presently spending billions every year on unjust wars and more than 800 military bases all over the world, but our K-12 public schools are faltering, while our university tuition rates and health care premiums continue to rise.

But our social, political and economic scales weigh even more unjustly for people of color in the underclass. Michelle Alexander posits that the United States currently has a "racial caste system," a network of laws, policies and practices that lock people of color into an inferior status. There are more African-Americans in prison today than were enslaved in the US in 1850. But this fact should not be filed under the label "bad decisions" or "poor personal responsibility." Take, for example, the current drug war declared by Reagan in 1982. The way this "war" has been waged has screamed injustice: today, 14% of drug users are African-American, but more than 60% of those with prison sentences related to drug charges are African American. These numbers don't add up. African Americans are disproportionally locked away for very same offenses that most white people get community service or probation for. This is where racism hides in our society: prisons, banks, workplaces, schools. These institutions are separate but unequal facilities that form The New Jim Crow.

When the early Christians referred to their Lord as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world," they weren't primarily concerned with getting individual sins whited out so they could stand in the presence of a perfect (and wrathful) God in order to go to heaven when they died. Instead, they were making royal claims, pledging allegiance to a King of an alternative Reign than that of Caesar. Jews in 1st century Palestine believed that when their God (Yahweh) returned triumphantly, then forgiveness would be extended to Israel for her failure to live out the God-ordained vocation to be a blessing to the entire world. This would serve as a ripple-effect to the rest of humanity. Indeed, before the world could be healed, God's instrument of redemption must have her national sins forgiven and steered back to the proper path.

Jesus of Nazareth was a fulfillment of the prophetic call of Isaiah to bear with the most vulnerable while courageously confronting all those addicted to power and control (which always locks fellow brothers and sisters into the basement of poverty and illegitimacy). Just as Jesus of Nazareth called God's People to repent of nationalistic pride and economic injustice at the end of 2nd Temple Judaism (the Temple was destroyed 4 decades after his murder), so too did Martin Luther King denounce the false gods of imperialist pride and free market fundamentalism towards the end of the declining American Empire (the Twin Towers were destroyed 3 decades after his murder). But our God is patient with's never too late to repent.

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